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Waltham Catholic school implements new learning program

By Meghan Dorney
Posted: 2/25/2005

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WALTHAM — Mary Esposito, principal of Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted school, was looking for a way to improve the professional development of her teachers when a parent attending an open house at the school made a suggestion. He introduced her to a program that not only enhanced the skills of teachers, but also promoted a better learning environment for students.

She was interested and looked into the program, which was run by the Global Institute for Student Aspirations at Endicott College. Esposito found that the program worked to enhance learning in schools through methods based on the nationally recognized research and practices of Dr. Russell J. Quaglia, director of the institute.

Quaglia’s methods are founded on eight conditions, which he says create an atmosphere in schools that helps students be successful. These conditions are belonging; heroes; sense of accomplishment; fun and excitement; curiosity and creativity; spirit of adventure; leadership and responsibility; and confidence to take action. These conditions are put into practice at the school through professional-development workshops, evaluations, seminars, student-leadership conferences and school-reform programs.

Starting out, students are given a survey entitled “My Voice,” which queries all aspects of their education including school facilities, teachers, administration, curriculum, parent involvement and faith. They are asked questions such as “Do you feel safe at school?” and “Is there an adult you can talk to freely with?” The program coordinators use the student responses to work with the school to customize a plan for improvement.

Now in its second year of a three-year partnership with the program, Esposito is grateful for all the help and enrichment her school has received. During that time, many things have changed, she said. Her teachers have discovered new teaching techniques and a clearer voice in how their teaching is evaluated by the administration, students feel like they have a say in their education and have gained confidence.

"We try to be more student friendly now," Esposito said. "The program teaches techniques such as: don't put a student on the spot by calling on a him if he doesn't have his hand raised. Instead, pull names out of hat so that every student knows he has a chance to be called on."

"If the kids are happy and feel safe, secure and comfortable in the environment here, they are going to learn," she continued. "They spend the better part of their day in school, so you want them to feel secure and know that they are a valuable members of the school community with important things to contribute."

Another notable change has been to the name of the program. On Jan. 25, the founders of the Global Institute for Student Aspirations announced the creation of a sister association called The National Catholic Center for Student Aspirations (NCCSA) operated out of Assumption College, Quaglia’s alma mater. The two programs are based on the same principals, but NCCSA delivers the eight conditions through the outline of the Catholic faith. Our Lady’s school is the first Catholic school in the archdiocese to implement the program.

"The benefits of the program are tremendous," stated Kristin Melley, associate director of NCCSA. "Students benefit from a real enhanced learning environment, which is made more fun and exciting and which encourages them to think 'why and why not.'"

Melley said the program also helps teachers to recognize “best practices” in teaching and to make those practices instinctual. “We offer schools the opportunity to involve themselves in self-reflection.”

"We don't direct a school-change program," she continued. "We listen to students and teachers and get them to collaborate and recognize their strengths, and we support them. We don't intend to change the inherent nature of the school; we want to help them enhance themselves and help teachers to do the best job they can."

In the second year of the program, the NCCSA philosophy is formally introduced to the parents. On Feb. 22, almost half of the 184 families at Our Lady’s school attended an information session run by Quaglia, which aimed to assist parents in practicing the eight conditions at home. He suggested simple things parents can do to help their children feel confident to follow their dreams.

Melley explained that parents are central to the education of their children. “Parents need to be involved in their children’s education,” she said. “Parents are their children’s heroes and role models.”

"We got a lot of positive feedback from the parents," said Esposito. "They felt good because they are already doing a lot of the things Quaglia was talking about, so it was very affirming for them."

"I think this program is great," she continued. "It takes time to do it, but it's really worth it. It's helping everyone."